A quick search on IMDb reveals that no less than twenty-three adaptations, including this one, of Alice in Wonderland have been produced over the years. That would at least partially explain why Tim Burton’s big-budget refitting feels so familiar, but it doesn’t quite explain why it’s so bland. On paper Burton is the perfect director for this material; a visionary with a masterful grasp of atmosphere and mood. He can make anything creepy, and since Alice in Wonderland is a pretty creepy story to begin with, this feels like it should be a slam-dunk. What happened?
A mesh between Carroll’s first and second novels, though borrowing much more from the second, the film opens with Alice (Wasikowska) and her family attending a party. As it turns out, the party is actually a celebration of the arranged marriage between Alice and Hamish (Leo Bill), a clumsy nerd with a perpetual scowl. Alice has no interest and stands him up as he attempts to propose. It’s at this point she begins following a rabbit, one that feels familiar from her dreams. Down the rabbit hole she goes into the world of Wonderland.
Considering the exposure this story has gotten through the generations, a surprise was really needed to make this adaptation worthwhile. Unfortunately, Linda Woolverton’s script does not provide anything remotely new or interesting, despite mashing the stories. It’s episodic in nature, which really hampers the continuity and fluidity of the film. Each scene feels like a piece to a separate movie, right down to the Mad Hatter’s in-and-out accent. The film must rely on its lush landscapes and 3D to keep the viewer’s interest – and even that is botched. Make no mistake; Burton’s settings are amazing. The film is a burst of color and the makeup effects are truly outstanding. What doesn’t fly is the 3D. This is another film that has been converted to 3D, and the end result is gimmicky, headache inducing, and does nothing to enhance the story. The action sequences are marred with artifacts and the rest are standard effects that we’ve seen time and again. It’s not used to enhance the story, but rather to cover it up.
The performances are solid. Young Mia Wasikowska is effective as the lead. She effectively captures the wonderment of having her dreams, however disturbing, realized. Johnny Depp does what he can with an underwritten role as the Mad Hatter, but it’s Helena Bonham Carter who’s the real scene-stealer as The Red Queen. Her overacting actually fits perfectly within the confines of the story, and it’s doubtful anyone else could yell “off with his head” with more gusto, especially considering the number of times she says it. Anne Hathaway also turns up as the critically underwritten White Queen.
Though elements of the film do work, this is an ultimately disposable piece of work from a very accomplished director. It feels like a product of the current 3D craze, which may or may not be around for the long haul. One last thing: this is not a film for young children. The Jabberwocky will undoubtedly cause nightmares for the little ones and most parents probably aren’t expecting severed fingers and a decapitated head to make appearances. Burton and his team have put style over substance here, resulting in an uneven and frustrating experience.
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Length: 108 Minutes
Rating: PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.
Theatrical Release: March 5, 2010
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Linda Woolverton. Based upon the novels by Lewis Carroll.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover